NEWARK, NEW JERSEY
ESSEX COUNTY HOMICIDE INVESTIGATOR Loren Muse sat in her boss's office.
"Wait a second," she said. "Are you telling me that the nun had breast implants?"
Ed Steinberg, the Essex County prosecutor, sat behind his desk rubbing his bowling-ball gut. He had that kind of build that from the back you wouldn't even know he was heavy, just that he had a flat ass. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. The shirt was yellow under the armpits. "So it appears, yeah."
"But she died of natural causes?" Loren said.
"That's what we thought."
"You don't think that anymore?"
"I don't think anything anymore," Steinberg said.
"I could make a crack here, boss."
"But you won't." Steinberg sighed and put on his reading glasses. "Sister Mary Rose, a tenth-grade social studies teacher, was found dead in her room at the convent. No signs of struggle, no wounds, she's sixty-two years old. Apparently a standard death- heart, stroke, something like that. Nothing suspicious."
"But?" Loren added.
"But there's been a new development."
"I think the word is 'augmentation.' "
"Stop it, you're killing me."
Loren turned both palms up. "I still don't see why I'm here."
"How about that you're the greatest homicide investigator in the naked, uh, county?"
Loren made a face.
"Yeah, didn't think that'd fly. This nun"- Steinberg lowered the reading glasses again-"taught at St. Margaret's High." He looked at her.
"So you were a student there, right?"
"And again I say: So?"
"So the Mother Superior has some juice with the brass. She requested you."
He checked the sheet. "That's her name."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. She called in a favor. Requested you by name."
Loren shook her head.
"You know her, I assume?"
"Mother Katherine? Only because I was constantly being sent to her office."
"Wait, you weren't an easy kid?" Steinberg put his hand to his heart. "Tattoo me shocked."
"I still don't see why she'd want me."
"Maybe she thought you'd be discreet."
"I hated that place."
"You didn't go to Catholic school, did you?"
He lifted his nameplate on his desk and pointed to the letters one at a time. "Steinberg," he read to her slowly. "Note the Stein. Note the Berg. See those names much in church?"
Loren nodded. "Right, then it'd be like explaining music to the deaf. What prosecutor will I be reporting to?"
That surprised her. "Directly?"
"Directly and only. Nobody else is on this, understood?"
She nodded. "Understood."
"You ready then?"
"Ready for what?"
"What about her?"
Steinberg stood and sauntered around his desk. "She's in the next room. She wants to talk to you privately."
When Loren Muse was a student at St. Margaret's School for Girls, Mother Katherine was twelve feet tall and approximately one hundred years old. The years had shrunk her down and reversed the aging process- but not by a lot. Mother Katherine had worn the full habit when Loren was at St. Margaret's. Now she was decked out in something undeniably pious, though far more casual. The clerical answer to Banana Republic, Loren guessed.
Steinberg said, "I'll leave you two alone."
Mother Katherine was standing, her hands folded in preprayer position. The door closed. Neither of them said anything. Loren knew this technique. She would not talk first.
As a sophomore at Livingston High School, Loren had been labeled a "problem student" and sent to St. Margaret's. Loren was a petite thing back then, just five feet tall, and she hadn't grown much in the ensuing years. The other investigators, all males and oh so clever, called her Squirt.
Investigators. You get them started, they'll shred you with the cutting lines.
But Loren hadn't always been one of the so-called troubled youth. When she was in elementary school, she was that tiny tomboy, that spunky spark plug of a girl who kicked ass in kickball and would sooner die than don anything in the pink family. Her father worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, mostly involving trucking. He was a sweet, quiet man who made the mistake of falling for a woman far too beautiful for him.
The Muse clan lived in the Coventry section of Livingston, New Jersey, a slice of suburbia well beyond their social and economic means. Loren's mother, the ravishing and demanding Mrs. Muse, had insisted because, dammit, she deserved it. No one- but no one- was going to look down on Carmen Muse.
She pushed Loren's father, demanding he work harder, take out more loans, find a way to keep up, until- exactly two days after Loren turned fourteen years old- Dad blew his brains out in their detached two-car garage.
In hindsight her father was probably bipolar. She understood that now. There was a chemical imbalance in his brain. A man kills himself- it's not fair to blame others. But Loren did. She blamed her mother. She wondered what her sweet, quiet father's life would have been like had he married someone less high maintenance than Carmen Valos of Bayonne.
Young Loren took the tragedy as one might expect: She rebelled like mad. She drank, smoked, hung out with the wrong crowd, slept around. It was, Loren knew, grossly unfair that boys with multiple sex partners are revered while girls who do the same are dumb sluts. But the truth was- and Loren hated to admit this- for all the comforting feminist rationalizations, Loren knew that her level of promiscuity was adversely (though directly) related to her self-esteem. That is, when her self-worth was low, her, uh, easiness factor rose. Men didn't seem to suffer the same fate, or if they did, they hid it better.
Mother Katherine broke the stalemate. "It's nice to see you, Loren."
"Same here," Loren said in a tentative voice that was so not like her. Gee, what next? Would she start biting her fingernails again? "Prosecutor Steinberg said you wanted to talk to me?"
"Should we sit?"
Loren shrugged a suit-yourself. They both sat. Loren folded her arms and slid low in her chair. She crossed her feet. It occurred to her that she had gum in her mouth. Mother Katherine's face pinched up in disapproval. Not to be cowed, Loren picked up the pace so that the discreet chew turned into something more like a bovine mastication.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
"We have a delicate situation here," Mother Katherine began. "It requires..." She looked up as if asking the Big Guy for a little assistance.
"Delicacy?" Loren replied.
"Okay," Loren said, dragging out the word. "This is about the nun with the boob job, right?"
Mother Katherine closed her eyes, opened them again. "It is. But I think you're missing the point."
"We had a wonderful teacher pass away."
"That would be Sister Mary Rose." Thinking: Our Lady of the Cleavage.
"Do you think she died of natural causes?" Loren asked.
"This is very tough to talk about."
"I'd like to help."
"You were a good girl, Loren."
"No, I was a pain in the ass."
Mother Katherine smothered a smile. "Well, yes, that too."
Loren returned the smile.
"There are different kinds of troublemakers," Mother Katherine said. "You were rebellious, yes, but you always had a good heart. You were never cruel to others. That, for me, has always been the key. You often got in trouble because you were sticking up for someone weaker."
Loren leaned forward and surprised herself: She took the nun's hand. Mother Katherine too seemed startled by the gesture. Her blue eyes looked into Loren's.
"Promise me you will keep what I'm about to tell you to yourself," Mother Katherine said. "It's very important. In this climate especially. Even the whiff of scandal-"
"I won't cover anything up."
"Nor would I want you to," she said, now giving her the theologically offended tone. "We need to get to the truth. I seriously considered the idea of just"- she waved her hand-"of just letting this go. Sister Mary Rose would have been buried quietly and that would have been the end of it."
Loren kept her hand on the nun's. The older woman's hand was dark, like it was made of balsam wood. "I'll do my best."
"You must understand. Sister Mary Rose was one of our best teachers."
"She taught social studies?"
Loren searched the memory banks. "I don't remember her."
"She joined us after you graduated."
"How long had she been at St. Margaret's?"
"Seven years. And let me tell you something. The woman was a saint. I know the word is overused, but there is no other way to describe her. Sister Mary Rose never asked for glory. She had no ego. She just wanted to do what was right."
Mother Katherine took back her hand. Loren leaned back and recrossed her legs. "Go on."
"When we- by we, I mean two sisters and myself- when we found her in the morning, Sister Mary Rose was in her nightclothes. She, like many of us, was a very modest woman."
Loren nodded, trying to encourage.
"We were upset, of course. She had stopped breathing. We tried mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions. A local policeman had recently visited to teach the children about lifesaving techniques. So we tried it. I was the one who did the chest compressions and..." Her voice trailed off.
"... And that was when you realized that Sister Mary Rose had breast implants?"
Mother Katherine nodded.
"Did you mention this to the other sisters?"
"Oh, no. Of course not."
Loren shrugged. "I don't really understand the problem," she said.
"Sister Mary Rose probably had a life before she became a nun. Who knows what it was like?"
"That's just it," Mother Katherine said. "She didn't."
"I'm not sure I follow."
"Sister Mary Rose came to us from a very conservative parish in Oregon. She was orphaned and joined the convent when she was fifteen years old."
Loren considered that. "So you had no idea that...?" She made halfhearted back-and-forth gestures in front of her own chest.
"Absolutely no idea."
"How do you explain it then?"
"I think"- Mother Katherine bit her lip-"I think Sister Mary Rose came to us under false pretenses."
"What sort of false pretenses?"
"I don't know." Mother Katherine looked up at her expectantly.
"And," Loren said, "that's where I come in?"
"You want me to find out what her deal was."
"That would be my hope, Loren. But we need to find the truth."
"Even if it's ugly?"
"Especially if it's ugly." Mother Katherine rose. "That's what you do with the ugly of this world. You pull it into God's light."
"Yeah," Loren said. "Into the light."
"You're not a believer anymore, are you, Loren?"
"I never was."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Loren stood, but Mother Katherine still towered over her. Yep, Loren thought, twelve feet tall. "Will you help me?"
"You know I will."